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Asia Bibi Will Be Given Another Chance At Justice

By: Ewelina U. Ochab

After months of waiting, a top Pakistani judge has confirmed that Asia Bibi will soon get the opportunity to have her appeal heard at the Pakistani Supreme Court. Reportedly, Chief Justice Saqib Nisar recently informed Asia Bibi’s legal representation that the date will soon be fixed. He is set to reside over the appeal. For Asia Bibi, this is the first ray of light since her appeal hearing was adjourned indefinitely in October 2016. It comes years after Asia Bibi was convicted for blasphemy and sentenced to death.

A sign reading ‘Free Asia Bibi’ is placed on display as people demonstrate on the Parvis des droits de l’homme in Paris on October 29, 2014, to protest against the death sentence handed down to Asia Bibi. (Photo credit: MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images)

Asia Bibi is a Christian Pakistani woman. She was convicted and sentenced to death by a Pakistani Court in November 2010. The Court found her guilty of making derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed during an argument with another woman. However, the facts of the case have always been in dispute. The BBC reported that:

Asia Bibi shar[ed] a bowl of water with fellow workers in a field, about 30 miles (48km) from Lahore, where they were working as farm labourers. It’s alleged that an argument erupted after some of the women felt it was sacrilegious for Muslims to share the cup with a Christian. Within weeks, the allegations had escalated to the charge of blasphemy, with some fellow workers accusing her of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. She was arrested and imprisoned.

Appallingly, reported inconsistencies in witness testimonies and fragmented evidence did not prevent the court from securing Bibi’s conviction and from passing the death sentence.

In 2014, the Lahore High Court upheld her death sentence. Nonetheless, the execution was stayed in July 2015, when the Pakistani Supreme Court agreed to hear her appeal. It was listed to take place during October 2016. Unfortunately, the appeal had to be adjourned after one of the three judges due to hear the case, Justice Iqbal Hameed-ur-Rehman, recused himself quoting a conflict of interests. Despite international outcry, Asia Bibi has had no success in appealing the sentence, with the appeal adjourned indefinitely in 2016.

Asia Bibi’s conviction was followed by the celebrations of those who continue to support the country’s blasphemy laws and violence targeted towards anyone who spoke up against her conviction or the draconian laws. Salman Taseer is one such example. He visited Asia Bibi in her jail cell and publicly expressed his opinion on the erroneous judgment and the dangerous laws that underpin it. He was murdered by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri. Another example is the Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti. He bravely spoke out against the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, yet was assassinated. Both murders were linked to the case of Asia Bibi.

Pakistan is notorious for the use of blasphemy laws. It comes as no surprise that Amnesty International’s Director of Global Issues, Audrey Gaughran, said at the launch of their report “As good as dead”: The impact of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan:

There is overwhelming evidence that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws violate human rights and encourage people to take the law into their own hands. Once a person is accused, they become ensnared in a system that offers them few protections, presumes them guilty, and fails to safeguard them against people willing to use violence.

Asia Bibi is not the exception. Several similar cases also exist in Pakistan alone. These include the plight of Rimsha Masih, a 14-year-old Christian girl with leaning difficulties, who was accused of burning pages of the Quran and four Ahmadiyya men accused of distributing ‘objectionable material’ (newspapers and magazines within the Ahmadiyya community).

The USCIFR reported that, in 2016, there were approximately 40 people serving life sentences or who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan alone. Yet, Pakistan is not the only place that sentencing guidelines for blasphemy also include the death sentence, for instance, Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen all carry similar penalties. In those countries, hundreds of individuals accused of blasphemy are struggling to access justice.

Blasphemy laws restrict the right to freedom of religion or belief, freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Blasphemy laws are based on punishment of statements that outrage religious feeling and representations that insult a particular religion or religious belief. Both outrage and insult are incredibly vague concepts which create legal uncertainty and encourage an unhelpful degree of subjectivity. Because of the dangers inherent in the concept of blasphemy, international and regional institutions continue to condemn their existence and advocate for the blasphemy laws to be repealed.

Despite the global movement to abolish blasphemy laws, the laws still exist. While Asia Bibi will be given a second opportunity to secure justice, it comes very late, more than seven years after her original conviction. More so, there is no guarantee that the outcome will be positive for Asia Bibi. More needs to be done to address the issues caused by these archaic and draconian laws. It is questionable, whether reforms to blasphemy laws would offer any relief. Repealing the provisions may be the only way forward.

Ewelina U. Ochab is a human rights advocate and author of the book “Never Again: Legal Responses to a Broken Promise in the Middle East.”

courtesy: Forbes,  May 20, 2018

https://www.forbes.com/sites/ewelinaochab/2018/05/20/asia-bibi-will-be-given-another-chance-at-justice/#395e11234e7a

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